Posted by Thomas Nephew on December 25th, 2008
I happen to really enjoy the “Bourne” movie series. “Identity,” “Supremacy,” and “Ultimatum” are all action-packed, how-will-he-get-out-of-this-one thrillers packing a nicely subversive message: our country’s national security apparatus can be ruthless, lethal, and beholden to nothing beyond its own purposes. Between waterboarding, secret detention sites, and more, that doesn’t seem too far off any more, of course.
No; it’s when the time came to beat American Spooks Gone Wrong that the newest, hippest spy movie franchise on the block just couldn’t keep pace with reality. Instead, the screenwriters and producers imagined that just faxing the media some documents would win the day. By the time “Ultimatum” came out in 2007, of course, that was clearly not the case, and when I first watched Joan Allen’s whistleblower dial up an unnamed fax recipient, it was all I could do not to yell “My god, no — not the New York Times!” in the theater where I was watching. In the movie, the supposedly inevitable publication, national scandal, congressional hearings, and perp walks for the bad guys all seemed and seem more fantastical and unrealistic than any number of Bourne-on-five fight scenes could.
The sickening torture and abuse revelations of the Bush years, and the lies that led to a hideously costly war are low standards against which all other scandals pale. In a certain cold perspective, though, these are (for the most part) “merely” stories about what we are willing to do to other people, far away and out of sight.
By contrast, the NSA warrantless surveillance story is an instructive test case about what we’re willing to do to our very own democracy, rule of law, and civil liberties when we feel threatened. Actions in defiance of settled law; a “dare you to mention it” coverup; a newspaper’s decision not to publish a story its reporters had painstakingly assembled; an election “accountability moment” that wasn’t; a legislative branch by turns unwilling, unable, or unwilling and unable to safeguard its prerogatives and the liberties of its people, a judiciary reduced to a spectator’s role; a key campaign pledge abandoned, and over it all, a persistent fog of lies from president to editor to Congress to intelligence agency. And under it all, a public by turns confused about and uninterested in which of its seemingly esoteric “rights” were being frittered away.
I’ve perhaps telegraphed my conclusion already, but here it is more plainly: while there are a few heroes in the story, this is a test case that our country has failed so far, often in spectacular, bipartisan fashion.
Ever since I saw Lichtblau and Risen — the New York Times reporters who broke the story in December 2005 — speaking to a local group about Lichtblau’s excellent book “Bush’s Law,” I’ve grown fascinated (OK, maybe obsessed) with trying to figure out just what happened, just how badly we failed at preserving the rights our country was supposed to be designed to protect, and just how hard it will be to ever succeed in the country we actually have.
As my resource and yours, I’ve now compiled a fairly detailed timeline in spreadsheet form: “FISA in the Bush years: a timeline of abuses and failures by the executive branch, the media, and Congress.” The timeline juxtaposes information from multiple sources, and links to supporting online documents; whenever possible, I’ve used exact dates, but I’ve estimated the dates and sequencing of many of the catalogued events (such dates are italicized in the spreadsheet).
This effort has a few things going for it, I think. First, it is now reasonably comprehensive, and may be the best reference work of its kind on the web. Second, it’s selected with a view to some of the narratives described above. Third, it remains a work in progress, with your input warmly welcomed. There’s nothing that will be new to everyone about the timeline, but I think even people who’ve followed the story closely may find it valuable. Mainly, I hope that by reminding ourselves of the whole story, we will also see just how the story worked to our disadvantage so far — and maybe how to change the story in the months and years ahead.
In my next post in this series, I’ll look at the New York Times and how it handled its latter-day Watergate. Grab some popcorn, and come along for the ride.